Bay Area Bites: Oakland’s Jack London District: A Food Desert For The Wealthy?

Boggia's favorite location is on Broadway and 4th street. It's been unoccupied for years. Photo: Lauren Benichou

Post originally published on KQED’s Bay Area Bites

Design for upcoming Portside Community Market. Image courtesy of Portside Community Market

Design for upcoming Portside Community Market. Image courtesy of Portside Community Market

The Jack London District might finally get something it’s been lacking since its booming development: a real grocery store.

After decades of growth and restructuring, a number of notable restaurants like Haven, Forge, and smaller artisans like Miette opened their doors on Jack London Square’s waterfront and within the surrounding residential areas. Even so, the district remains a food desert meaning that access to fresh produce is limited. Aside from a farmers’ market, which happens only once a week, the closest grocery store to the Jack London District is in Chinatown.

A startup team decided that it was time to shake things up. Tommaso Boggia and La Wanda Knox are co-founders of Portside Community Market, a soon-to-be cooperative whose mission will be to provide residents in the Jack London District with fresh, local and organic produce. The team plans to build a 5000-square-foot community market.

The hip neighborhood has attracted investors, restaurants and festivals but Boggia says this type of business development doesn’t necessarily reflect the residents’ wishes.

“I have been working with a neighborhood association for over a year, researching how Jack London residents, visitors, employees and business owners would like to see the neighborhood improve,” Boggia explains. “Over and over again, the number one concern is having more residential amenities and more specifically, a grocery store.”

Boggia is from Italy. He moved to the U.S. nine years ago and was shocked by the lack of access to fresh food.

“I was not able to walk to a place to get fresh and healthy food,” he says. “And I lived in Santa Cruz!”

For over year, Tommaso Boggia conducted research asking residents how they would like to see Jack London Square improve. Photo: Lauren Benichou

For over year, Tommaso Boggia conducted research asking residents how they would like to see Jack London Square improve. Photo: Lauren Benichou

Knox is a business developer and the mastermind behind Portside Community Market’s business strategy.

“I come from Bayview in San Francisco,” she says. “It’s what you would call another food desert.”

Knox believes the market is an opportunity to build wealth and support the local economy. It is also an opportunity for her to grow professionally. Her stint as a corporate consultant left her feeling frustrated and she hopes that a cooperative business will offer a better working environment.

“I have worked in the corporate world and it is not friendly to African American women,” she says. “I always plateaued.”

Brahm Ahmadi from People’s Grocery inspired her. Ahmadi and his team are undertaking a similar venture in West Oakland called the People’s Community Market. Ahmadi is currently fundraising for his West Oakland project. After meeting with Ahmadi, she gained a better understanding of the challenges ahead, like the lack of “real” support from the City of Oakland.

“The city of Oakland says it supports the concept but at the same time officials haven’t put anything behind it,” she says.

La Wanda Knox is a business developer and the mastermind behind the business strategy of Portside Community Market. Photo: Lauren Benichou

La Wanda Knox is a business developer and the mastermind behind the business strategy of Portside Community Market. Photo: Lauren Benichou

But let’s be honest, Jack London Square brings massive revenue to the city of Oakland and residents aren’t living in poverty. Jack London’s 2000 residents do not have the same “needs” as West Oakland’s 25,000 residents, half of whom do not own a car, which makes walking 1.5 miles to the nearest grocery store a real challenge. So, I ask, why Jack London?

“I was not going go to a community of need and impose something on a community that is not my own,” Boggia says while Knox nods in approval. “This is the community that I know, that I live in and that’s why I wanted to start it here. From the beginning our idea was to create a replicable model whether through franchise or just though creating a way to support a sister cooperative in a community that is more in need but it will be driven from the people of that community,” he says.

Jack London: A Food Desert and Vacant Buildings

The district of Jack London is home to more than 2000 residents and workers but it is also a harbor of vacant buildings. Since the 1970s, numerous developers attempted to redesign Jack London Square only to leave behind empty spaces. In the 1970s, European-style pathways and storefronts popped up but the project never succeeded in exciting the masses. Barnes and Noble, which open in the 1980s, closed in 2010 and the building has been vacant ever since. That same year, Jack London Square Ventures LLC, a partnership between Ellis LLC and Divco West, envisioned a ferry-building-style market and built a six-story glass building composed of office and retail space. 90 percent of the office space is now leased to restaurants like Haven or Bocanova but the 72,000 square feet of retail space is still market-less.

Vacant buildings are a common sight in Jack London. Photo: Lauren Benichou

Vacant buildings are a common sight in Jack London. Photo: Lauren Benichou

What’s Next?

“The next step is figuring out our fundraising logistics and as soon as we are incorporated, we can start finalizing the location,” Boggia says.

“We are looking at visibility, parking, square footage and proximity to residential areas,” Knox adds.

Boggia's favorite location is on Broadway and 4th street. It's been unoccupied for years. Photo: Lauren Benichou

Boggia’s favorite location is on Broadway and 4th street. It’s been unoccupied for years. Photo: Lauren Benichou

But that’s easier said than done. Boggia says that some of the major challenges the team faces have been plaguing the district for years: property owners’ lack of strategy or unrealistic goals. He says that some of them, like Jack London Partners, are waiting for big box grocery stores like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s, to lease or buy their properties.

“That’s never going to happen,” he says. “There isn’t the residential density for it and even then they keep telling us that they don’t want something smaller.”

This location on Alice and 3rd is Knox's preference. "It has character," she says. Photo: Lauren Benichou

This location on Alice and 3rd is Knox’s preference. “It has character,” she says. Photo: Lauren Benichou

The team has recently launched a survey asking what residents would like their grocery store to look like. Boggia is convinced that the Portside Community Market will thrive even with competitors like Whole Foods because the project is truly community-oriented.

“We’ll reflect the neighborhood’s character, we are adaptable and we are worker-owned,” he says smiling.

More Information

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In Vallejo, Citizens Directly Choosing Projects to Fund



Originally published/aired on KQED on May 28, 2013. 

The Vallejo City Council is set to vote Tuesday on a series of projects — from streetlights to senior centers — that were chosen directly by nearly 4,000 residents last month. These projects came about as part of the city’s adoption of a new civic model called “participatory budgeting.” The items up for a vote, totaling about $3 million, represent a small chunk of the city’s budget. But Monica Tipton, who volunteered as a budget delegate, said even that small amount wasn’t so easy to grapple with.

“I learned that all those people that I was like, ‘Oh my God, they make such stupid decisions, why don’t they do this, this and this…?’ I know now why they don’t do this, this and this,” she said. “It’s a tough process.”

Participatory budgeting is a new twist on an old theme, dating back to New England town meetings. The model Vallejo adopted was developed in Brazil in the 1980s, and it’s been picked up in places like Chicago, New York and San Francisco.

Professor Larry Rosenthal, from UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, said people have been thinking about direct democracy for years. “What differs here is that a city like Vallejo or wards in Chicago have actual resources,” he said, “and the person who was in control of those resources, or the agency, makes a decision that they no longer wish to exercise discretion in the first instance about how that money gets spent. Instead, they want the community to decide.”

The idea is spreading. In San Jose, a city councilman is pushing for participatory budgeting. In Oakland, community activists are proposing different approaches. The Community Democracy Project, or CDP, is an all-volunteer group that meets every week at Sudo Room in downtown Oakland. Co-founder Sonya Rifkin said she wants to give residents power to decide the entire city budget.

“Will it take a concerted effort? Yes,” she said. “Will it take time to work, to get in the groove of it? Yes. Will we learn a lot along the way? Yes. But is it worth it? I think so.“

Rifkin’s group hopes to put an initiative on the Oakland ballot next year.

Adam Stiles of Open Budget Oakland, which creates online resources to help people make sense of city spending, said the group’s new visualization tools, also known as “civic hacking,” help translate between city officials and the community.

“What we are trying to do is create a platform where people can easily understand the budget, “ Stiles said. “Then, based on what they see, have a more informed discussion about it and then find out how to get more involved and participate in the budget process.”

Most cities actually have a public process right now, such as Oakland’s town hall meetings. At one of those sessions, Oakland resident Mary Forte echoed the sentiments of many residents who showed up that day.

“There just seem like they’re always questions,” said Forte. “It’s a lot of numbers that are really complex for people to understand.”

Groups like CDP and Open Budget Oakland can make things clearer for voters like Forte and could involve more people in budget decisions. But UC Berkeley’s Rosenthal said that the more participatory the process, the more unwieldy it can become.

“These things are extraordinarily difficult to administer in total budget settings,” Rosenthal said. “We would be looking at a substantial investment of time and effort.”

Back in Vallejo, Monica Tipton said the large turnout that the participatory budgeting vote attracted should convince the council to ratify the citizen-approved projects.

“They will approve it, I have confidence of that,” she said.

Art Deco Ball: A Tomboy’s Adventure in the Lifestyle of the 1930s




Instant Film Photoshoot at the 1930s ball.

Originally published on KQED’s NewsFix.

There is a first time for everything. There was the first time I ever Rollerbladed, the first time I stepped onto an airplane and the first time I covered a 1930s ball.

This weekend I attended the Art Deco Society of California’s (ADSC) Preservation Ball, honoring the 40th anniversary of the Paramount’s restoration. And like many of my first times, I was nervous. The invitation clearly stated, “Black/white tie or vintage formal/cocktail attire in the style of the 1920s, ’30s or ’40s requested,” and my wardrobe is mainly composed of sneakers, jeans and the occasional hipster cardigan.

As a reporter, I truly wanted to blend in. As an unequivocal tomboy, I dreaded the idea of wearing a ball gown. My research led me to one of the most famous scenes with Marlene Dietrich in “Morocco,” a 1930 movie in which she wears a tux and overtly flirts with a woman. With that in mind, finding a tux for a woman my size – I am quite short – wasn’t going to be easy.

I always assumed that hipsters were the only ones who found a use for vintage shops. In reality, these shops have a real clientele: faithful customers who wouldn’t wear anything but clothes from the Roaring ‘20s or the Great Depression.

The Art Deco Society’s website provided guests with a list of vintage stores in the area. I picked the first one on the list and drove to San Francisco the day of the ball, hoping for a miracle. I headed for the Haight and entered a store called Decades of Fashion. It smelled like old clothes. It was filled with relics from every single decade until the 1960s. An androgynous woman dressed with a dapper 1920s look asked me how she could help.  I said I was looking for a tux for a ball in Oakland.

“The Preservation Ball?” she said. That’s when I realized that this event was bigger than just a few people gathering to play dress-up.

She took me through a maze of aisles, each dedicated to a style or an era.

“This is our tux section,” she said, as she started sliding hangers. She found an original 1920s tux that was exactly my size. Once I tried it on, my anxiety level dropped. I had found my outfit for the ball … seriously. With the tux, I purchased a bowtie from the 1930s, suspenders and four studs for the shirt – they didn’t use buttons at the time.

The ball was held at the Paramount Theatre in honor of the 40thanniversary of its preservation and restoration. The Paramount opened its door in 1931, two years after “Black Thursday,” which was the start of the Wall Street Crash of 1929. It was a time when people badly needed entertainment.

Jack Bethards was the former executive director of the Oakland Symphony in the 1970s.

“It was a great show business time,” Bethards said. “The studio system was turning out wonderful movies of all types, including big lavish musicals, which of course were ideal in this building.”

Business was in full swing until the demand for large movie theaters dropped.

“In the 1970s, large movie theaters that seated 3,000 people were simply not drawing that kind of audience anymore,” Bethards said. “Many theaters were broken up into smaller individual theaters we called multiplex.”

At the time, the Oakland Symphony was looking for a new home and purchased the Paramount Theatre in 1973.

“At that time, the art deco style wasn’t really recognized,” Bethards said. “It was considered to be passe and so many people, including many donors to the project, thought that the theater ought to be modernized, updated and simplified in design. But we set up a very simple standard. Architecture first, show business second.”

After nine months of work and $1 million, the Paramount Theatre was completely renovated and had regained the splendor it once had. Since then, the management of the Paramount has made an ongoing effort to preserve the building. It was declared a California registered landmark in 1976 and a year later became a national historic landmark.

The ball was the opportunity to celebrate the restoration of the art deco building. And what better way to do so than time travel?

I walked from my apartment in downtown Oakland to the Paramount in a tux. It was a long five-minute walk and I honestly didn’t know what to expect. I was walking on Broadway when I first saw the 1930s Ford. A tall broad-shouldered man in a top hat and small circular glasses stepped out of the car. He trotted around and opened the door on the passenger side. A woman, wearing a long ostrich feather in her hair and ermine fur covering her shoulders, elegantly emerged from the car. It felt like a window back in time. Their attitudes, their gaits, everything was perfectly on point. They must have been doing this a lot.

Reporter Lauren Benichou is working on a story about a Bay Area community of 1920s, ’30s and ’40s enthusiasts who go to great lengths to preserve the lifestyle of these eras. 

KALW’s Bay Area Beats: Micah Tron



KALW’s Bay Area Beats: Micah Tron

Originally aired/published on KALW

Micah Tron is a rapper born and raised in San Francisco. She’s a queer woman of color, but the hurdles she has faced go even beyond her race, sexual preference, and gender. She lived in a shelter, was displaced by Hurricane Katrina and a few years into her twenties, she was diagnosed with epilepsy. But she hasn’t let this stop her from pursuing her music career – she says it actually motivates her. After her nephew was born deaf, she learned sign language, and her latest dream is to make music for the deaf community. She spoke with reporter Lo Benichou about her story.

MICAH TRON: Tramicah Dimpsy is my government name. Micah Tron is my artist name.

When I was younger, my mom got me a karaoke machine for Christmas and I had been dying for it, too, and I got it and I was juiced and so I started…downloaded instrumentals from the internet, put them on CDs, and putting them into the karaoke machine and then rapping in my beats and making little cassette tapes.

I was trying to dabble into poetry because I was into the whole Def Jam on HBO thing. I was also thinking about journalism at the same time that’s why I went to New Orleans for, to study journalism – I wanted to be a writer, but music was really my passion.

So it was me and my sister and my other brother, and it was just us three, and my mom, she raised us all, by herself. I felt like she is the strongest woman I’ve ever known. She worked two or three jobs but we always stay fresh. We lived in the projects, but we always stay fresh!

“The Sky is Falling Down” was a song I wrote awhile back. Three characters, coming together – and they all have these trials and tribulations. People who come from that kind of background – the kind of background I came from, really – but, you know, there is a way to make it. I feel like I am the odd bird in my family.

There was one point we stayed in a shelter and I had a mentor who they assigned to me. And I feel like she opened up the whole world to me, because I lived in the projects and my family was so closed minded. I didn’t really get to see a lot of the city and so she took me to places like the DeYoung Museum, she took me to Crissy Field. I had never seen Crissy Field before in my life.

We did a lot of stuff – it was so mind-blowing. It opened my whole eyes to the city. I had never known, you know. Then she disappeared, I never saw her again. And I know that she was a lesbian and I think that may have impacted me somehow, too. I felt like I came out at two different times, one to my family was the most recent because my family is kind of small-minded and bias against a lot of kind of people. But before that, I was just doing me – everybody pretty much knew.

I always thought it was an opportunity. There’s not many lesbian rappers trying to really get out there. I moved around a lot. I actually stayed at my dad’s house for a while in Georgia. He came and got me before the hurricane hit. I was going to Dillard University and it was a week before the hurricane and I got displaced.  It set me back so far.

I think I just now caught up to where I need to be, but as far as school-wise, they lost all of my information, my scholarship, my records and all of this so I was starting over really. I was with a friend and we were in my room and I just blanked out. And I blacked out. My friend said you know you really just had a seizure and you need to go get some help.

I saw the doctors and they put me on medication and I went from medication to medication and I felt like the medication made me sicker, so I stopped taking medicine. I am lucky that it hasn’t happened yet on stage. I am afraid it will happen but I try not to think about it. It was the Lil Kim show. That was my like, big boom of the year. I had been doing small club events and little stuff here and there for like non-profits and stuff like that, but when I got the opportunity to do that, I was stoked! I felt like I was priority. He called me for the opportunity – it was not something I applied for or that I tried to get, I was called up and I was her opener. I was the last person to go on before she did, so that was really cool. I’m working at a school called SEED, it’s a school for deaf toddlers and infants.

That’s one of my new ideas – I’m feeling like I want to make music for deaf people. They feel the tempo of the music and they feel the punch of the music but the sounds are different. It’s something they feel and internalize differently than other people because I feel like people who hear music don’t really listen to music – they just hear it. They feel it, they boppin’ to it, but they don’t really internalize the sounds, instruments, words everything that’s inside the songs.

I feel like I want to do something like that to bring out the music in a song so people can see it from a different side. That’s what I want to do, really – to travel. To get my music everywhere so I can show everybody who I am, so people can experience something different from somebody who is in a realm of people who get overlooked all the time. I think it’s our time to stand up.

New Piece for The Kitchen Sisters and KQED: The Making of a Hat


Paul’s Hat Works is a hat shop in San Francisco, CA – Photo by Lauren Benichou

Paul’s Hat Works is a 100-year-old hat shop in San Francisco’s Richmond District. Four ladies run the shop and fabricate custom-made men’s hats. One of the owners, Olivia Griffin, took me on a tour and shared the secrets of her craft. I spent two days with dapper hat-makers in a workshop worthy of Mister Geppetto’s, recording century-old tools and women working with their hands. At Paul’s Hat Works, each hat has a story waiting to be told. This is the making of a hat.

Full photos on the Kitchen Sister’s Making Of Blog

KALW’s Crosscurrents: New Version of The Marine Mammal Center Piece


Note: KALW aired an edited version of my piece about the Marine Mammal Center in January 29, 2013. This article is copied from their website

A place for unwell marine mammals to be loved, set free

The standard breakfast at the Marine Mammal Rescue Center, in Sausalito, is fish, fish and more fish. It’s so fishy, in fact, that the volunteers who donate their time also donate some of their clothes to the special animal hospital.

elephant seal Perucita 2[7]

“Whatever clothes you wear here, you can’t wear anywhere else,” says Carol Wilson, a volunteer for 10 years who was there on a Friday morning helping prepare breakfast, mostly herring, in the huge industrial-looking kitchen.

“It’s really hands-on, I do amazing things here. I gave shots to animals, I have taught countless seals how to eat fish, I have drawn blood from dead animals,” says Wilson.

Volunteers are charged with sorting big bricks of frozen fish for the marine mammals. They thaw them out and make sure there are no lacerations. The smallest cut can have enough bacteria in it to harm the animals, and the discarded fish goes into the grinder. Once breakfast is ready, the fish is carried out to the pens in metal buckets

Being that it is an animal hospital, some of the fish is used to deliver medicine.

“You can tell it is a med fish because the end of the fish is cut off… And the pills are stuffed inside,” Wilson says.

Volunteers wear rubber boots and slickers, like rubbery fisherman’s overalls, and step through a solution of hydrogen peroxide before going in and out of the animal pens, and from the pen areas to other areas of the center.

Every morning the veterinarians go through each patient’s chart and decide how much they get to eat. Education volunteer Tamara Thomas must feed one and three-quarter kilograms of fish to a California sea lion called Fulano.

Each animal has a name.

“The person who calls in the rescue, when you see this animals sick, injured, hurt somewhere, they get to name that animal – they get to name that patient,” Thomas says.

But there are other means of identifying the animals. Each one has an orange tag with a specific number on its front flipper. That way, if a patient like Fulano ends up back in the hospital, they’ll be able to recognize him.

It’s necessary to take precautions when entering the pens. Volunteers stand behind wooden boards that look similar to riot shields as they prepare to serve breakfast to a pair of sea lions named Wolverine and Bandicoot. The boards have teeth marks in them.

“You want to always stay behind the board,” Wilson says. “Sea lions are fast and they have teeth and they bite.”

“So we are going to toss a fish in just to get it in the pool. Everybody eats in the water, in the pool,” Thomas says.

There are two reasons for throwing fish in the water: it distracts the animals while people enter the pen, and it keeps them sharp. These animals aren’t pets – they’re patients – and they’ll eventually return to the ocean where they will have to hunt and fish in the water.

Rescuing these animals is a human responsibility, according to Jim Oswalt, a spokesman for the Marine Mammal Rescue Center.

“These animals strand on beaches and other spots for a reason, either illnesses, in some cases caused by human activities, ocean trash entanglements, gunshot wounds and other bad things that happen to marine mammals as a result of humans,” Oswalt says.

The center also does scientific research that directly contributes to human medical science. Some of these animals come with cancers and illnesses that can also affect humans. Thanks to the research that the center conducts, it is known that the algae blooms that are a danger to marine mammals are the same ones that keep humans from eating oysters during certain seasons.

“We get animals, California sea lions in particular, who are suffering from what’s called ‘domoic acid poisoning.’ It’s toxic algae, basically,” Oswalt says.” Now, it’s caused by harmful algal blooms, which is a naturally occurring thing in the ocean, but what isn’t natural is the spread of it.”

Marine mammals eat the fish that have eaten that algae and then become sick, in some cases suffering from seizures that can destroy the brain over time, according to Oswalt.

“It also makes them disoriented so pretty soon you see animals ending up on the highway in the Central Valley for instance…we get a rescue call saying ‘we see an animal here on I-80,’” he says.

Once an animal is given a clean bill of health it is ready to be released. It is brought to the beach in a large kennel and set free. Of course, the Marine Mammal Rescue Center keeps track of the ones they’ve released with those little orange tags. And there are many of them – swimming up the California coast right now.